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Amid federal uncertainty, two of the state’s most notorious coal ash storage sites will likely test new cleanup rules adopted this year.
Two months ago, Illinois became the fourth state to pass new regulations on coal ash storage and cleanup, following North Carolina, Michigan and Virginia. Now environmental groups are invoking the law to ensure more stringent cleanup than might happen under federal coal ash rules being rolled back by the Trump administration.
The first test cases appear to be two of the state’s most notorious coal ash repositories: the NRG-owned Lincoln Stone Quarry southwest of Chicago and a former Dynegy coal plant along the Vermilion River’s Middle Fork in central Illinois.
Lincoln Stone Quarry and the Vermilion site are unlined, as are most of Illinois’ coal ash sites. Under federal rules adopted by the Obama administration, they must begin closure by October 2020, though that deadline could change given the Trump administration’s review.
The Vermilion coal plant shut down in 2011, and the Joliet coal plant that long disposed of ash in Lincoln Stone Quarry was converted to natural gas in 2016. Both plants are going through the closure process under the federal coal ash rule, which includes a mandate to publicly post closure plans.
The new Illinois law calls for state standards that are at least as strict as federal standards, and it requires a public process including the opportunity for public meetings.
The new state statute orders the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to draft specific coal ash rules by March 2020, and, after public input, the Illinois Pollution Control Board must finalize the rules within a year. Environmental advocates and attorneys say that while the specifics of the state rule are still to be determined, the law is already in effect and should be taken into consideration as companies propose their closure plans.
“Even though the rulemaking will flesh out a lot of details about how these permitting programs are going to work, we know what the floor of the rules is — that they have to be at least as protective as the federal ones,” said Jenny Cassel, an attorney representing environmental and citizen groups in the Lincoln Stone Quarry proceeding. “We have an option to do better, and the rules will further define what that means.”
Lincoln Stone Quarry
NRG has implied that Lincoln Stone Quarry is not subject to the state coal ash law, noting that it is considered a coal ash impoundment under the federal rules, and a landfill under state law. The environmental groups’ petition argues that since it is considered an impoundment under federal law, and the state law enshrines the federal law in state proceedings, it must be treated as a coal ash impoundment by the state as well.
The local group Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, the Prairie Rivers Network, Earthjustice, and the Sierra Club petitioned the Illinois Pollution Control Board demanding a public meeting before the board approved closure plans — as required under the state and federal laws.
On Aug. 27, NRG held a public meeting in Joliet, though advocates and residents who attended say it was insufficient. Cassel said her team surveyed many locals and few had heard about the meeting or any information from NRG on closure plans.
“The law is clear that there has to be robust public participation — an opportunity for comment, an opportunity to request a hearing, and we have to make sure it’s accessible to communities like Joliet and Waukegan [the site of another NRG coal plant] where there are a high percentage of Spanish speakers,” Cassel said. “There needs to be good advance notice, links to documents, translation provided.”
Residents who live near the Lincoln Stone Quarry have long been worried about groundwater contamination from coal ash stored in the former limestone quarry about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. The site owners — Midwest Generation and ComEd before NRG — have carried out groundwater monitoring in the area since 1976, according to NRG.
In January 2018, a finding of arsenic, lithium and molybdenum in groundwater monitoring wells substantially above background levels triggered more assessment, investigation and closure proposals.
There is a small amount of coal ash from past operations still to be deposited in the quarry, then it will be closed. The company is proposing to close it with an impermeable membrane on top and a cap of either soil or artificial turf. Residents and their attorneys say such closure wouldn’t prevent future groundwater contamination.
A public comment filed by environmental and local groups said that closure without removing ash “would violate both state and federal law.”
NRG and environmental groups agree that the natural water table and the coal ash impoundment intersect, with NRG saying the water table sits about 50 feet above the bottom of the coal ash impoundment, and environmental groups’ studies putting the intersection zone at about 100 feet. That means “groundwater flows freely into and out of the ash, disseminating hazardous coal ash contaminants into the shallow aquifer,” the group’s comment says.
NRG says its studies show no groundwater contamination of concern has happened, since groundwater naturally flows from the quarry away from residences. When an unrelated nearby mining operation changed the local hydrology, NRG constructed a “cone of depression” that essentially sucks water flowing toward the residences back into the quarry, as explained in NRG’s August presentation.
“Data developed by licensed hydrogeologists [and reported to the Illinois EPA] shows there has been no movement of water from Lincoln Stone Quarry toward the neighborhood to the northeast,” said NRG spokesperson Dave Schrader. “For more than 40 years, Lincoln Stone Quarry has been operated responsibly, under strict permit limits and the oversight of the IEPA. That oversight will continue after closure as well. Midwest Generation is taking the concerns and questions of residents near Lincoln Stone Quarry seriously and is committed to being transparent during the process.”
The cost of cleanup
NRG’s study notes that removing the 2.6 million tons of coal ash in the quarry would cost $95 million and involve 225,000 truckloads of ash leaving the site. Trucks leaving every 5 to 10 minutes during business hours would take at least 20 years to complete such a removal, the company says.
NRG says a liner combined with a layer of soil would mean 13,000 trucks passing through surrounding neighborhoods, and closure with artificial turf would mean 400 trucks. The soil cap closure would cost $8.3 million and the artificial turf closure $5.1 million, according to NRG’s study, with either taking about two years to complete.
The petition filed by environmental groups disagrees with NRG’s interpretation of case law. The groups say that precedent does not allow the company to consider “economic reasonableness” in choosing a closure option.
Cassel said the company should have considered other transportation options — including rail and barge — that would likely be less disruptive. She wants to see the final state rules specify that all possible transportation methods must be studied.
“When something can be moved by rail or barge other than just moving by trucks and trucks and trucks,” that should be studied, Cassel said. “There are multiple rails pretty much immediately adjacent to Lincoln Stone Quarry, so it’s laughable they [NRG] didn’t talk about them at all. They transported coal in for many years, they had a way to get the coal in — so they should look at these options to get coal ash out as well.”
Schrader countered: “It’s not feasible to transport the coal ash by barge or rail. Neither can get to Lincoln Stone Quarry so the ash would have to be trucked to a rail line or waterway, increasing the handling of ash and potential for particulate emissions.”
The study also explores “wet closure,” wherein water would remain in the coal ash impoundment but pumping would make sure it didn’t intersect with the groundwater table, as NRG described it.
“They make this false distinction between wet closure by cap versus dry closure by cap when it’s in cracked rock already sitting in groundwater, so even if they were to pump out some of the water in the quarry, they’d have to keep pumping forever and ever,” Cassel said. “No matter what kind of cap they put on it, it will be wet — so the only dry closure is by getting this stuff out of there.”
Cassel said she hopes debate around Lincoln Stone Quarry can help clarify the need to remove coal ash from other unlined Illinois repositories as well.
“We want to highlight that ash simply shouldn’t remain in water,” Cassel said. “That’s most apparent at Lincoln Stone Quarry where there’s coal ash sitting in 65 to 75 feet of water. … These heavy metals that are in the coal ash — studies have shown they can take hundreds or thousands of years to leach out into the water.”
Fighting for the Middle Fork
For years, the Prairie Rivers Network, the Eco-Justice Collaborative and other central Illinois environmentalists have warned that erosion of the banks separating the Vermilion’s Middle Fork from coal ash could put the designated wild and scenic river at risk of serious spillage and contamination. They’ve collected many photos showing what appears to be orange leachate seeping from the banks into the river.
They have long argued that coal ash must be moved to a secure location farther from the river. Meanwhile Dynegy — now owned by the company Vistra Energy — has invested heavily in erosion control measures along the banks.
Eco-Justice Collaborative co-founder Pam Richart said she hopes the state law can influence the outcome on the Middle Fork, and she thinks years of robust public pressure regarding the Middle Fork have changed the situation and helped shape the state law. She noted that advocacy around the Middle Fork helped push the Illinois EPA to support the idea — enshrined in the law — that companies need to provide financial assurances for cleanup.
“We successfully got a public hearing for the riverbank stabilization project — this is due, in part, to the campaign and grassroots pressure,” Richart said. “Initially, Dynegy dismissed the option of ash removal as too costly to pursue. After three years of public pressure, they now have a fully costed proposal for removing the ash onto their property.”
Vistra spokesperson Meranda Cohn said in a statement: “Dynegy Midwest Generation continues to work with the Illinois EPA and other stakeholders on appropriate plans for riverbank stabilization and impoundment closure that will meet all regulatory requirements and is protective of the adjacent Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Given the unique situation on the site, the designation and the proximity to the river, this plan goes well beyond precedent closures and includes removing ash from one of the existing impoundments to another impoundment that is farther away from the river as well as installing a slurry wall to provide additional groundwater protection.”
The Eco-Justice Collaborative urged its supporters to comment during a series of meetings the Illinois EPA is hosting in September and October on the new coal ash law. The Illinois EPA listening sessions are not meant to deal with specific sites, but the Eco-Justice Collaborative is urging people to submit comments about the Vermilion Middle Fork and frame it as a statewide symbol.
“While the technical experts also will submit comments, [Eco-Justice Collaborative] believes that comments from the public carry just as much weight,” Richart said, “since it is those who live near coal ash impoundments who have the most to gain with a solid, strong, protective coal ash rule.”